Total Work Newsletter #9: WeWork, We Roam, and WeLive

Total Work Newsletter: How Work Took Over the World

Total Work, a term coined by the philosopher Josef Pieper, is the process by which human beings are transformed into workers as work, like a total solar eclipse symbolized in the logo above, comes to occlude all other aspects of life. In these newsletters, I’ll be documenting, reflecting upon, and seeking to understand this world historical process, one that started at least as far back as 1800 and quite possibly well before then.

Huge Thanks: Huge thanks to all the readers who keep sending me things to read. I’m happy to see that these newsletters are touching a chord, and I’m continually surprised by how weird modern culture is. In this newsletter… A man can’t sit still and has a list of things to do on a day off. State actors are willing to exploit cryptocurrencies and blockchain. WeWork is a real place where work couldn’t be cooler–or more central to living. And could there be a further hollowing out of the middle class thanks to AI?


Totally Awesome: Can't Believe This is my Job

Courtesy of Daniel Doyen

#1: Oh, Help Me, Rhonda! What to Do With a Day Off 2 min. | NYT | Listicle | HT Alexandra Taggart

NYT Sum: “Happy Presidents’ Day! If you’re fortunate enough to have the day off from work, the most important thing on your to-do list today is to actually take the day off.” The writer then goes on to suggest all the things you can do.

My Emotional Reaction: This piece, albeit short and very fluffy, made me want to throw my computer across the room. In anger and in anguish. It’s the epitome, really, of (a) thoughtlessness, (b), contradictoriness, and ©, and this most especially, total work. At the outset, the author invites us to “do nothing,” only to then list all the things we can do on a “day off”! Throughout, his restlessness (acedia) is palpable.

Ug!: “Do absolutely nothing,” he concludes (as part of his list of things to do!). “This is my plan, and there’s not much more to say here. Give yourself permission to plant in front of the TV today, recharge your batteries and get a good night’s sleep. It might even make you more productive at work this week.” Ug! While I’m inclined to throw up my hands in exasperation, instead I’ll point you back to Issue #2, where I write about the difference between “free time” and leisure.

Academic Work is Work

Sarah Burton

@DrFloraPoste

Academic work is work. None of us float around wearing gowns and having deep thoughts, as if we're in an episode of Morse. Academic work is practical, physical, creative, and hard, as much as it is intellectual. https://t.co/Z5j8j8VBNw

12:36 AM - 27 Feb 2018

In his very insightful book Leisure: The Basis of Culture (1948), Josef Pieper already sees how the intellectual life is being transformed into intellectual work. Because of this, 70 years after the book is written it is very much common sense to defend the academic life on the grounds that, like all other things, it too is work. The political left made this case strenuously: there is manual labor, and there is intellectual labor. And so, the best way to legitimize the existence of anything intellectual is to call it work.

#2: The Leisure Society Maybe? | The Questions about AI that We should be Asking | 10 min. | WEF | Opinion HT Mark Storm

WEF Sum: “AI’s impact on jobs is only part of a much bigger discussion on its impact on society, says Sami Mahroum.”

Interesting Science Fiction: What’s interesting about this piece (cf. the Scott Alexander piece on technological unemployment below) is that Mahroum begins to imagine what a leisure society (my words, not his) could look like. Some of the best thinking these days has an air of SF about it.

#3: Calling All Bullshit! | Why Capitalism Creates Pointless Jobs | 5 min. | Evonomics | Opinion

Evo Sum: “In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that technology would have advanced sufficiently by century’s end that countries like Great Britain or the United States would achieve a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless.”

Pure Panache: I’ve read this piece maybe 3 or 4 times now, and each time I can’t help but find it darkly amusing. Graeber is trying to account for the rise of “bullshit jobs” when we might have expected to be working about 15 hours a week. What happened if expanded consumerism (“the gospel of consumerism,” as Benjamin Hunnicut has called it in one of his books) ain’t the whole story? Well, read and find it. Only, I can’t resist quoting this line: “It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working.”

#4: When Dystopia Was Marketed as Utopia | The WeWork Manifesto: First, Office Space. Next, the World. 15 min. | NYT | Feature HT Daniel Doyon

NYT Sum: “The brash, ambitious founders of WeWork, a global network of shared office spaces, want nothing less than to transform the way we work, live and play.”

Reactions: This piece is totally crazy. It describes what is, for it, a utopia that might as well be our modern dystopia. (Eat your heart out, Aldous Huxley.) Of course, before the Industrial Revolution, work was woven together with non-work in myriad ways. Of course too, I think the Industrial separation of “work” from “life” was–ethically as well as geographically–a huge mistake. Of course, lastly, I also, up to a point, am sympathetic to social entrepreneurship. And yet, it doesn’t follow that we should (a) keep work so central to human life that (b) everything else in life should be subservient to it or else be subsumed by it. Such is the vision, a dystopian one, limned by the founders of WeWork. The writer says, “‘It’s awesome,’ Jake DeCicco said. 'You just roll out of bed, go down the elevator and get to work.’” Or rather: you’re almost never not working or not thinking about work…

Actually, Neither is True

Two Hockey Sticks, Basically

The classic hockey stick graph is a myth for sure, but so is the modified hockey stick graph. True, reality is messy, but that’s not exactly what the second graph is implying: it’s implying that you’ll make it through the messiness in order to achieve scale. The obvious truth, however, is that most startups and new businesses fail. As Nassim Taleb would say, these are graphs only of the outliers: all the dead bodies are ungraphed. The bias–maybe it’s better grasped as a “noble lie”–in entrepreneurship is blind optimism.

#5: The Rise of Mid-Tech | The American Midwest is Quickly Becoming a Blue-collar Version of Silicon Valley 5 min. | Quartz | Feature

QZ Opening: The economic engine of Silicon Valley seems to have driven right by the Midwest. America’s urban coastal cities have enjoyed an explosion in their technology sectors.”

In Sum: My friend Michael Coren investigates the “rise of ‘mid-tech’”, which “can be defined as skilled tech work that doesn’t require a college degree: just intense, focused training on the job or in vocational programs like those of blue-collar trades of the industrial past.” Could mid-tech jobs help the Midwest think part of its way out of its post-manufacturing malaise?

#6: The Provisional Final Word on Keyne's Pronouncement | Technological Unemployment: Much More Than You Wanted To Know | 30 min. | Slate Star Codex | Meta-analysis HT Misha Lepetic

Sum: “This is my attempt to figure out what economists and experts think so I can understand the issue, and I’m writing it down to speed your going through the same process.”

Overview: This is a crazy-long, dense piece. Here’s one way to read to glean the insights without looking at countless graphs. Search for “David Autor,” since the writer Scott Alexander generally endorses Autor’s view. Read the things that Autor says. Then read Alexander’s “tentative conclusions” listed under Section V.

The Uphot: Alexander doesn’t see mass technological unemployment happening in the short term, but he does think it highly probable (70% confidence) that robots could “thin out” the middle classes and so “push” some workers into higher-skilled jobs while “pushing” many workers into taking lower-skilled jobs.

Quite Busy, It Seems

Someone sent me an email to sell me on the idea of his creating an app for me. I wasn’t interested, so I didn’t reply to the original email. He wrote a second email, which begins: “I understand you must be quite busy with your work.” The total work assumption–not responding because the recipient must be quite busy with one’s work–is staring us right in the face.

We Will Rise

Aspirations for the coming year were recently posted in the hallway of Rise gym at WeWork. Photo Credit: NYT

WeWork, WeLive, and We Roam

A Spoil Sport

Public philosophy of the kind I practice is inspired by Diogenes the Cynic (412-323 BCE). Diogenes, whom Plato once called “Socrates gone mad,” held that we should exercise courage in the face of misfortune and hardship; that we should nature, not conventions; and that reason, not the passions, should guide our actions. Diogenes, like Socrates, teaches us to stand back and, you might say, examine what’s cool to see whether it holds up when seen in the light of reason.

And, man, working today for knowledge workers is not just cool but, as the Germans sometimes say, super-cool. Examining the super-cool status of work means cutting through the yeahs as well as the the boos.

Examples? At WeLive, which provides nomads with furnished, flexible apartments and which is one arm of the becoming-ginormous WeWork, it’s said: “Life is better when we are part of something greater than ourselves.” At WeWork, the mission is to “[c]reate a world where people work to make a life, not just a living.” And at Roam, you can embrace a “coliving and coworking community [that’s] testing the boundaries between work, travel and life adventure.”

These things sound pretty cool and carry a bunch of promised “internal goods”: friendship, community, flexibility, freedom, adventure, enterprisingness. But are they really genuine goods or just bare, barren substitutes for what our hearts most yearn for?

Chucking the Liked One

On the Bay Area NBC (HT Paul Millerd), it was recently reported that “41 percent [of those 364 single employed millennials without children] said they would end a relationship for a promotion.” When given the choice between their current salary with the option of having a relationship and a $36,000 raise provided that they “put off having a relationship,” “almost a third” said that they’d take the raise, warts and all.

We should grant the obvious selection bias. While it’s not surprising to discover that hustlers aged 20-36-years-old and living in the Bay Area are hyper-competitive and success-driven (hello), we should begin to investigate what the nature of this kind of life is really like. After all, not too long ago Elon Musk, perennial achiever and visionary entrepreneur, and his latest girlfriend broke up because both, according to what I read, were too committed to their work. The downside when you’re a world changer in your mid-40s? “Going to sleep alone kills me,” Musk confides in Rolling Stone. “It’s not like I don’t know what that feels like: Being in a big empty house, and the footsteps echoing through the hallway, no one there–and no one on the pillow next to you. Fuck. How do you make yourself happy in a situation like that?”

Ikigai, the Whole Meaningful Work Spiel

If you put work first, does that mean you’re guaranteed “calling,” ergo “meaningful work”? The promise we keep hearing, and the line we (done it myself when I was younger) keep feeding to millennials, is hell, yes. Ikigai is a Japanese concept, which refers to the “sweet spot” where doing what you love, what you’re good at, what the world needs, and what you can get paid for all come together in one of those neat Venn diagrams:

Neat Venn Diagram Elegantly Resting on the Anthropologie-weathered Table

The only flaw I see is that, notwithstanding the beauty of this chart, the idea is utterly delusional. What is required for this to be true is nothing less than, in another context, what Leibniz called a “pre-established harmony.” The world of work already has to disclose itself in such a way as to be ready for individuals to come in and find themselves perfectly suited, in terms of personal and social fit, for the particular work they’re doing. And in most cases (see the Graeber piece above), the world actually doesn’t work that way; there’s actually quite a lot of bullshit work around. If the entrepreneurial rebuttal is that I can make up the work for myself, I’d invite you to consider how often that actually happens (see my qualms with the hockey stick charts above). Few make it ‘out here,’ and those who do count themselves, as I do, pretty damn lucky. Right place, right time, right ideas, and a stiff, very forgiving wind. To change metaphors: catching the zeitgeist is about as easy, and as likely, as catching and riding a big wave.

Besides, how easy it is to really know, especially (so to say) a priori, what you’re good at? How easy to discern, also a priori, what you love? And a priori what the world needs? If my own experience is any guide, then most of this is learned a posteriori, and there’s no guarantee that they’ll all line up.

Ikigai, following the total work line, advocates for our putting all our eggs in one basket, a move I now believe to be mistaken and subject to unforeseeable suffering. Inasmuch as it’s going against the Way (or Dao) of things, it’s about as un-Daoist as you can get. And going against Reality often packs a nasty punch.

Living Like a This-Worldly Ascetic Rock Star

WeWork is nothing if not weird. Imagine just rolling out of bed, hitting the gym (Rise, sadly not called WeWorkedOut), putting your daughter in preschool at WeGrow, doing the whole co-working thing (WeCoWork), socializing with other nomads at WeBar (OK, I made that one up plus WeWorkedOut and WeCoWork), and generally living in what sounds to me like a freakin’ compound. Actually, you don’t have to imagine because a New York Times freelance writer recently wrote about her experience at Roam in Miami. What’s weird?, you ask. I’ll tell ya:

  1. This is what it actually looks like to see a total work dystopia presented in the guise of a utopia. Work is central, you’re fundamentally a worker, and everything in life is or is related to work. (“Woke up, got outta bed, brushed a phone across my head….”) And everyone around you thinks the same. It feels like watching a science fiction film in the making.

  2. What many of us actually care about, the internal goods I mentioned above, is offered in much the way that social media is: not good enough and not real enough. Like many of you, I imagine, I long for face-to-face community of the kind promised (but rarely fulfilled) in intentional communities. Communities of genuine care. Responsible people who, at the last moment and with no questions asked, will watch your children. Well, this ain’t it. Nicholas Carr, back in 2006, argued that the Internet may be turning us into “pancake people.” Analogously, WeWork proffers shallow friendship, shallow community, and shallow take on changemaking.

  3. Actually, it looks a lot like a vision of Peter Pan, of a bunch of man-children and woman-children not growing up, celebrating youth culture and hedonism, and singing the naive praises of “changing the world.”

What a weird bubble to be in. Hopefully, this one pops, and a few brave souls, seeing Diogenes’ reflection in unlit store window, face the frigid night alone before they find others collecting near the harbor.

Waking Up

WeWorkers are placeless (atopos), childless, and for all intents and purposes familyless and allegianceless. They have many “weak social ties,” and if they had to sport anything, it would be a brand of cosmopolitanism yoked to flexibility. I don’t 'buy’ the WeWork mission that they’re creating a “world where people work to make a life, not just a living.” It’s rather a world in which life is indistinguishable from work. Let it be said that this is a profound social experiment in the production of mass “unencumbered” human beings whose lives are tethered to a cosmopolitan aesthetic of the “ethical cool”: it’s creatively cool to do good (or to believe that you are).

Work, for knowledge workers, has really become this super-cool, hip, uber-facilitated, coachy thing. Kinda like a cross between therapy and design. Hyper-creative. Project-based. De-territorialized. Full of learning plus lots of diagrams, charts, Post-it notes, frameworks, Moleskin notebooks, black t-shirts, co-creations, Muji pens, micro-brews, reflections. What I’m arguing is that this whole aesthetic of ethical coolness is, in most cases, a whole lotta bullshit and that we’ve been seduced by it. The result? Exceptional shallowness as well as a failure to muscle up to a world filled with genuine human suffering.

We’ve been sleepwalking through the super-cool work fog for too long. Hey, I was once there. Let’s quit it and wake up.

An Extra about States and Crypto

Scheming Like A State 10 min. | 3QD | Essay

Sum: My friend Misha Lepetic writes about the unintended consequences of blockchain and cryptocurrency. While the piece is not technically about work, it seems fitting here as a reflection on the relationship between a form of financial capitalism and potentially shadowy state activity. What’s more, he invites us, in the spirit of public philosophy, to lift the veil and pierce the illusion of some of our assumptions. And in case you missed the joke, the title is an allusion to James C. Scott’s book Seeing Like a State.

Comments, Suggestions, Articles on Total Work?

Feel free to send comments, suggestions, canards, and articles about total work to me at Andrew Taggart <totalwork.us@gmail.com>.